We played a lot of good mobile games this year, but one that really stands out from the crowd is Downwell, a superb roguelike-like that puts players in control of a little pixelated person who's falling deep down into a well. The hint was in the name.
On the face of it this is a ludicrously simple game. You fall down, avoiding the angry side of the baddies you meet on the way, jumping onto the heads of those that you can, and shooting the rest with your gunboots where possible. But once you look past that there's different weapons, a few alternate starting presets that unlock over time, and in-between each level you're given an upgrade. As you play, and the further you fall, the more you can customise your character, and the better your chances of survival. Well, that's not strictly true, because the further you fall, the more deadly the world and your enemies.
It's all wrapped up with deliciously low-fi graphics and a quirky chiptune theme, and accentuated with a carefully realised visual language that does a great job of communicating everything the player needs to know despite the simplistic nature of the visuals.
It's also a fearsome challenge and it'll keep you going for hours as you master the basics, grow in confidence and add in some finesse, before eventually trying to string together combos as you stomp your way to glory using the heads of your enemies as steppingstones on your way. Downwell plays just as great on PC, but we lost so many hours to it on mobile that it makes our top three handheld games of 2015.
Image & Form is a company that knows portable gaming. And it's not just because of SteamWorld Dig and Heist that both debuted on Nintendo 3DS. Prior to this they plied their trade on mobile and Nintendo DS. It's what they excel at, yet SteamWorld Heist is undoubtedly their biggest project to date. We clocked around 20 hours for the campaign, and loved every minute of it.
The gameplay mission-to-mission can be described as Xcom turned on its side, or a more tactically deep take on classic Worms. The mechanic where you bounced bullets off walls as your aim is rocking ever so gently up and down is brilliant as it introduces an element of timing into what is otherwise a purely tactical experience. It's a game where a single wrong move can cost you the mission (at least on the higher difficulties), and it also allows for some insane hail mary saves if you managed to angle that perfect skill shot or if you're able to take out three enemies with one shotgun spread.
There is a fairly basic story where our ragtag crew of Steambots attempts to save themselves and ultimately all Steambots from three different threats (each with a map full of missions for you to conquer). There's a ton of loot, hats, and characters to level up and customise with items and weaponry, making for a surprisingly flexible system within the linear premise. It's all wrapped up in charming presentation where both visuals and music create a wonderful whole thanks to the eclectic nature of both.
This game will make it onto home consoles next year and while some aspects will favour larger screens it is clear to us that it's a perfect fit for on the go gaming. The turn-based nature and the relatively short missions and brief story beats make it perfect for the bus, that coffee break at work, or during a commercial break on TV.
While the Tomb Raider series continues down a dark and brooding path, the Lara Croft spin-off titles provide a much more light-hearted adventuring experience. Like Guardian of Light and Temple of Osiris, Lara Croft GO features an isometric view with a more traditional Lara - complete with trademark shorts and dual pistols - fearlessly navigating all manner of dusty old ruins in search of ancient relics. This is essentially Lara Croft doing what she does best.
Lara effortlessly fits into the turn-based strategy model introduced in Hitman GO. Instead of focusing on action and platforming, gameplay revolves around tactics and decision making. It's not something you would expect would lend itself particularly well to a series that thrives on high-octane adrenaline-fuelled exploration, but it works a charm. The focus on strategy provides gameplay that really gives your brain a workout and the small levels with frequent checkpoints means its trial and error nature delights rather than frustrates.
Simplistic yet stunning watercolour visuals really shine on mobile and the basic input makes it perfectly suited for gaming on the go. Despite pushing the series further from where it's ever been in terms of gameplay, its tone, puzzles, locations and even sound effects provide a title that's closer to the PSOne era of Tomb Raider than anything offered by subsequent console generations.
While long term fans will revel in the feeling of the old school Tomb Raider titles this manages to perfectly evoke, Lara Croft GO is a solid and enjoyable experience that's our favourite mobile release of the year, and a game that even those yet unacquainted with Miss Croft should definitely delve into.